Felix Mendelssohn understood the need for theme programming 

The theme creates an arc during a concert that engages all listeners, regardless of their level of music literacy. When people are presented with a series of ideas, they instinctively form connections. When the connections are obvious, a whole audience will walk away with the same set of obvious connections. 

Themed concerts can create a 'collective experience' among audience members as a key determinant of 'performance quality.’ This can greatly enhance the 'affective experience', or simply 'enjoyment of the performance as a whole'.

All pieces of music tell stories. They emanate from a certain cultural milieu, and if nothing else, they describe stories of their own creation. In shaping a program around a theme, any theme, one considers that the music itself becomes limited by the idea which it serves. On the contrary, this new storytelling idea, itself often contained within larger ones, and filled with other smaller stories, can inspire and move the participants into a new journey, a fresh relationship.

What is a Theme and Why is it Important? A theme is a dominant thought, a unifying vision, a moral. It is the central idea behind your concert. A theme communicates a kind of truth about the way human beings act, think, or feel.

Why should you use themes in your programming?

Themed­ concerts can be edifying and entertaining for students and concert ­goers alike. They are a welcome diversion from the usual potpourri of concert pieces.

A themed concert may contain a few selections of a theme or the entire repertoire may be along the chosen theme. Program notes can tell why you selected a theme and contain relevant information or fascinating tidbits about the theme. No music group is too young or too old to have a theme-oriented concert.

Want to make the concert extra fun? Use student narration or video. For example, for the theme of “dance,” before the presentation of each selection have a student give a brief presentation about that dance style (such as its history or famous figures) or on a screen present footage of people dancing in that dance style as the school band or orchestra plays. Or have some students from your school dance to the accompaniment of the music.

Themes help audiences relate to real-time experiences and build on prior knowledge or experiences with a genre of music. Thematic units also help us pave the way to facilitating learning of a new genre and experiences.



Amuse comes from the Middle French word amuser, meaning "to divert the attention, beguile, delude." Averted, changed, entertained, redirected, amused, amazed, dumbfounded, staggered, get the idea.

Watching performers increases understanding, knowledge or engagement. It’s exciting to witness music being made in front of you. Audience members recognize that an understanding of how music operates can be gleaned through visual information, and that observing the performance can contribute to an audience member's engagement. It is part of what takes them out of the everyday into the space of the concert hall.

There is rarely a tension between auditory and visual stimuli. There has been thought that visual stimuli would detract from the auditory. The opposite is true. Most concert goers explicitly expressed appreciation at the presence of visual information. This helped them focus on the experience happening in real-time before their eyes and ears. Visual information is an important part of the experience because it helps provide understanding and/or engagement.

And what kind of things are important for a concert to be enjoyable? The enthusiasm of the performers is paramount. If they look as if they're enjoying what they are doing, and they can convey that sense of enjoyment to the audience, then it's made it into a live experience.

Seeing performers' energy/commitment increases audience members' engagement/enjoyment. An unexpectedly prominent theme was the enjoyment that both seasoned and novice attenders gleaned from watching performers who themselves seem to be enjoying, and engaged in, the performance.

If the performers are involved and enthusiastic, then you feel that you've really gone to a concert that is a very satisfying, integrated experience, rather than just sort of looking at it from the outside. Something that takes you off the street into the world of the concert hall.

Another survey found that concert goers' emotional needs include the need for stimulation/excitement, escape/fantasy, catharsis/release (“thrill”, “frisson”) and intensity/intimacy/passion. They expect a lot. How do we provide that?

PEOPLE REMEMBER STORIES NOT FACTS connect with their humanity


 All pieces of music tell stories. They emanate from a certain cultural milieu, and if nothing else, they describe stories of their own creation.

Since humans first walked the earth, they have told stories, before even the written word or oral language. Through cave drawings and over fires, humans have told stories to shape our existence. Things happen to us -- the elements of a story -- but as humans, we have unique perspectives, which shape how a story is relayed.

Anthropologists tell us that storytelling is central to human existence. That it's common to every known culture. That it involves a symbiotic exchange between teller and listener – an exchange we learn to negotiate in infancy.

Just as the brain detects patterns in the visual forms of nature – a face, a figure, a flower – and in sound, so too it detects patterns in information. Stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns, we find meaning. We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others. They are the signal within the noise.

We're all constantly exchanging our own narratives. We do it all the time. We do it on the phone, we do it online, we do it in coffee shops, we do with people we love, we do with people we just met for the first time. This is not new. For thousands of years almost every human culture has been telling stories. Telling stories helps make sense of what it is to be human.

Stories let us carve our initials into the wet cement of the moment.

Creating stories allows for a prophetic dimension to emerge from the relics of our musical heritage, inspiring a reinterpretation. To discover in them something we have not seen before. The story-line both informs and creates a context for the various pieces, all perfectly delightful in and of themselves, but now enhanced by their new placement within ideas quite relevant to our current lives. Can they speak to modern ears, with new meaning? Yes, absolutely.

We know this much: people want to be immersed. They want to get involved in a story, to carve out a role for themselves, to make it their own.



 We very often notice that great music needs and gets serious attention and absorption from players and audience alike. Everyone needs to acknowledge that profound immersion is the most rewarding way to perform and to listen. For this to happen, distractions need to be kept to a minimum. To do that if both the senses of hearing and seeing are focused on one thing immersion can take place.

For most respondents who identified the capacity for variance as an enjoyable element of live performance, this preference was not related to identifying absolute imperfections, but more about recognizing and valuing the idiosyncrasies of a unique performance, to the extent that performances which were deemed 'technically correct' without 'really coming to life' were viewed by some as 'missing that last bit of the jigsaw' The uniqueness of live performance increased the appeal of very familiar works, as 'the same piece can sound quite different on two different occasions, even played by the same people.

As Susan Tomes observes in her study, if a concert audience can 'hear and see the player; body language can be expressive, and adds the information you get from seeing to the information you get from listening'.

Arguably some of these facets of performance quality can only really be gleaned in the live performance situation - a recorded performance may supply 'perfection' but can it also convey a combination of 'enthusiasm', 'personal expression', and 'character'?

When the listeners found the performance 'engaging' or 'emotionally moving', it was found that emotional engagement was a better predictor of enjoyment than performance quality.



 What makes the experience of attending concerts enjoyable? 37% of respondents of one focus group mentioned live experience and/or a sense of immediacy: commenting on the nature of live performance, or on the live 'atmosphere.'

More broadly, 72% of respondents indicated that one of their reasons for attending the concert was because 'the program appeals to me'

Combinations of novelty and familiarity. A significant proportion of questionnaire responses which mentioned novelty described it in conjunction with familiarity, noting, for example 'the warmth of familiar favorite pieces and the excitement of appreciating unfamiliar works'

In my own experience, I haven’t met an audience yet – younger or older, nightclub or library – that doesn’t like to participate in some way in the show

As in the case above, some respondents placed importance on this first-hand experience because it engenders communication or a feeling of interaction with the performers: I've had many enjoyable musical experiences which were not of the top quality, in the conventional sense. And equally I have been to allegedly top-quality events where I felt totally alien from what was going on. [ ... ] It comes back to the communication, the sense of a nexus between you and the [musicians]

They identify factors such as a sense of 'collective experience' among audience members as a key determinant of 'performance quality', thereby bringing the variable closer to what Thompson (2007: 20) identifies as 'affective experience', or simply 'enjoyment of the performance as a whole.’



We have designed our 3 concerts ,Bach and Sons, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Around the World in 80 MInutes, to include all of these points. The audience and hosts thank us.

It's even beyond their imaginations. It's worth exploring.  





Portions of 10 Things Classical Audiences Want,  were excerpted from :

· The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music Lydia Goehr

. Association of British  Orchestras - Stop Re-inventing The Wheel A guide to what we already know about developing audiences for Classical Music 

· Abercrombie, N., and B. Longhurst. 1998. Audiences: A Sociological Theory of Performance and Imagination. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage 

· Between stalls, stage and score: An investigation of audience experience and enjoyment in classical music performance Melissa Dobson Submitted for the degree of PhD Department of Music University of Sheffield April 2010